Why Are Millennials So Self-Absorbed?

I’ve heard it countless times. The endless criticism of the millennial generation for being “entitled”, “ self-absorbed”, “spoiled”, the list goes on. My generation almost exclusively hears negative things about us from the generations above us. I was recently listening to public radio and heard yet another negative report on the podcast Hidden Brain about the rise of narcissism among young people. The host discussed social research findings and the impact of having to feel like we are “special” all the time. I listened to this and I felt deeply hurt. I felt so hurt because I felt terribly alone. It is easy to talk about the symptoms of self-absorption in millennials, I have yet to hear anyone ask “why is this happening?” I believe the majority of millennials feel alone, and if we are self-absorbed it might be because all we have is ourselves.

We have no heroes

Give me a list of 20 public figures who do not have some kind of scandal attached to them. I’ll wait. So many of the people we looked up to as children have become mired in allegations of destructive behavior. From coaches convicted of systematic abuse of children, athletes who sexually exploited others, political figures who were not the people they claimed to be, actors and comedians and TV show hosts who turned out to be abusive and selfish. There are very few people left that model integrity and selflessness. Part of the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor struck such a cord is because it is borderline shocking when someone we grew up with is actually a kind person. Was actually trustworthy and cared about us. We have become distressingly accustomed to our role models being hypocrites and secretly toxic. Why would we look outward when all we see is disappointment and abused trust? Is it not much safer to trust only ourselves?

We have no heroes…including our parents

I was recently sitting around a table with five 18-23 year-olds and I was the only one in the group who grew up in a loving, stable home. In my eleven years of working with college students, it is the exception when a young person comes from a family where the parents are together and have a healthy relationship and lifestyle. Most of the time today’s young people are carrying a great deal of pain and alienation that started in their homes. Hurts not only from divorce but from emotional neglect, parental unreliability, patterns of sin and addiction in the home, death and tragedy, and a lack of feeling known and loved by their parents. The people who were created to offer us unconditional love and support have very often let us down in deeply wounding ways. Is it any wonder that we turn to our devices and social networks for validation and connection?

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Pornography is everywhere

I have yet to hear anyone include the prevalence of pornography in discussions about narcissism and mental health among millennials. We are constantly told that we are bad at relating to others and lack resilience, and none of those same critics ask how the availability of pornography in the digital age has shaped an entire generation to be emotionally and physically isolated. Pornography is the ultimate example of self-absorption. It is designed in such a way that it allows a person to be alone while receiving the illusion of connection. It removes the need for others while creating a false sense of shared reality. And it is a very bitter master. It keeps its users trapped in isolation by appearing to meet needs and then paralyzing them from being able to experience true connection and intimacy. It distorts one’s ability to empathize with others and accurately interpret social situations. The Atlantic began a conversation about pornography’s impact in an article on the sexual recession that is occurring among young people. An entire generation does not have the tools to form meaningful and lasting intimate relationships. So we are alone. We stay home, falling deeper into unhealthy patterns, lacking the tools or support to find a better way. Lonely and scared of one another.

We don’t have the church

Countless reports will tell you that millennials and younger are the least churched generation. The reasons for this are many. Church sexual scandals are an obvious and legitimate one. From the Catholic church to multiple other denominations and congregations hiding abusive leaders and systemic sin. This has caused a generation of “little ones” to stumble (Luke 17:2). Add to this generations of racism (The Color of Compromise) and sexism, and young people who care very much about issues of justice and inequality are going to view the church with profound cynicism. The church in America has also struggled to adapt to social changes. Leaving many young people walking out the doors on a Sunday morning feeling that it was not for them and their presence is of little consequence to the other worshippers. This is indeed a great social tragedy. The Family of God has the potential to add so much meaning and support and can be a major protective factor in the lives of young people. Without it, we have neither an extended support system nor a transforming relationship with Christ to sustain and pull us outwards and into the broader community. Whenever I see research data revealing that young people are more lonely, depressed and anxious than ever, I know it is connected to not having faith and truth in their lives. If we do not have faith communities to care for us and invite us into a bigger story, with what are we left?

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So what do we do? I can start by saying that we would benefit from less criticism and more compassion. No one becomes who they are in a vacuum, please take time to empathize with us and why we have resorted to the coping patterns we have. This is not to let millennials off the hook for the unhealthy trends in our midst. We need to own our lives and develop better coping methods. But yelling and demeaning has never helped anyone grow and change and has certainly never helped someone feel less alone. We are your children and grandchildren, we are not aliens from another planet. Please get to know us and give us a little credit. Questions I have rarely heard from a baby-boomer are, “Why do you think that is? What do you think about that?” Spend more time building bridges and inviting us into a shared way forward and less time writing us off. The majority of millennials I know are passionate, intelligent, curious, and hopeful. We all need one another. Please join with us and allow us to speak into your lives as well. We cannot do this alone.

Speaking Power to Truth

So here we are in the fullness of postmodernity. Our current cultural era that gained widespread momentum in the 1980s and 1990s is largely defined by relativity and fluidity. A reaction against the absolutism and potential arrogance of the Modern era, postmodernism has decentralized the concept of universal truth. Rather than holding to ubiquitous definitions of what all people everywhere ought to believe, today’s culture allows truth to be defined more by personal experience and cultural vantage point. We have reached a threshold where an entire generation has only known postmodernity, it is now part of who we are.

Much of this is beneficial to society. Postmodernism creates space for a diverse and complex humanity to be expressed and acknowledged. Modernism tended to frame the “normal” human experience through the lens of white western ideals, ignoring the perspective of ethnic minorities in the US and around the world. Our current climate has given birth to an increasing democratization of whose experience gets to inform the social consciousness, bringing important and valid representation out of the margins. It has given rise to the storytelling phenomenon of the “anti-hero”, characters who are both flawed and sympathetic. Narrow depictions of heroes/villains are rare, now we recognize that all people are capable of great destruction and great good. We are enjoying remarkably rapid advancements in technology and innovation. In a culture where absolutes are gone, there is more room to reimagine what might be possible and the process through which new things can be created.  These are developments that should be celebrated.

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We are also seeing the fullness of the dark side of postmodernity. In an age where truth is relative and each person “speaks their truth” as they see it…who decides who’s truth shapes the cultural ethos? If there are no widely agreed upon standards for human functioning, who has the authority to affirm or condemn a particular set of behavior? If everyone is speaking their truth, who is allowed to call certain language or views incorrect? In the absence of universal truth, the only thing that remains is power.

2016 made it increasingly clear that relative truth is a door that swings both ways. The backlash against being “politically correct” was based on indignation at what felt like double standards. Why do some people get to express themselves without reserve while others feel shut down in their views? Many felt that diversity is celebrated unless it comes from a certain sector of society. So 2016 became a power struggle over who gets to define the cultural narrative. Very little of that year was based on seeking the good of our whole society. Instead, it was marked by fracturing and a frantic scramble to stay in control. We were all angry, scared, and willing to sacrifice integrity along with compassion for the sake of being in power. This is the downside of relative truth: whoever is in power defines truth. Sadly, power often brings out the worst in us.

So where do we go from here, particularly those who seek to be Christ-followers?

Repent

First, we should search our hearts and invite the Spirit to reveal where we need to repent. Where did we get caught up in our own version of seeking power? When did we forget to love our neighbors as ourselves? Where do we fall prey to fear and anger? We could all use some healthy soul-searching. How might our attitude change if we are consistently asking Christ to give us hearts of flesh rather than hearts of stone?

Communicate the common good

As a Christian who has a deep love for the Bible, I am convinced that God’s desire is for all people to experience flourishing. This includes exhortations both positive and painful. Those that are most painful are often commands that invite us to turn away from selfishness and destruction. How can we better demonstrate to our communities that the Bible’s exclusive claim to truth is for the good of all?

However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.

 ~ Deuteronomy 15:4,7-8 (NIV)

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

            ~ Deuteronomy 10:17-19

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 

35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

            ~ Luke 6:27-28, 35-36

The nature of the way God invites us to live is such that if everyone followed Him, society would be marked by mutual care and trustworthiness. We would not be afraid to show vulnerability. We wouldn’t hesitate to build others up because we would all be motivated to seek the good of others. No power struggle, only a commitment to love others with the love we have received from God. That starts within the Body of Christ living that way with one another acting as a model to the world of a better way of connecting.

Employ grace and truth

This is hard to do and yet it is what defines Jesus.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

~ John 1:14

 Loving people well includes telling them the truth, even when it will be hard to hear. If you read the whole Bible, you will see sections where God is very clearly confrontational and condemning of behavior that is destroying human dignity and society (literally all of the prophets). God hates poverty and injustice and sexual exploitation because it diminishes the value of human life and each person as bearers of God’s image. Those are messages that Christians need to hear as well as our broader society. The value of all persons is a core message of the Bible, and God gives us guidance on how to pursue that value in culture. As the Church, let us reconnect with that truth. That is how we seek to share both grace and truth with the world.

Humans are meant to have some measure of structure. Structure can sound binding, but it actually elevates purpose. Chaos is a breeding ground for meaninglessness. Humans are far from meaningless in God’s eyes. That’s why we long to be connected to something big that matters in real ways. Let scripture be our guide in affirming that which is good and Godly in postmodernity. Let scripture, along with the example of Christ, be our guide in calling the world to know a complex God who created a complex world that is guided by common good and universal wisdom. What better way to embrace postmodernity than by demonstrating that truth can be both personally good and universally beneficial?